In case you’ve been living under a rock, Maria Sharapova will make her competitive return to the WTA Tour at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix in Stuttgart on Wednesday April 26, 2017 - and I argue why it simply shouldn’t be happening in the fashion that it is.
First of all, people are treating Sharapova as some sort of hero who has been dealt an injustice from the ITF. No, let’s get one thing straight - she was using a banned substance, a drug that is now known to be performance enhancing, and was rightfully suspended from tennis - a sentence that was leniently reduced to just 15 months mind you. Just remember that Sharapova concealed the fact she had been taking meldonium for a decade from anti-doping authorities, WTA doctors and members of her own team - and she was supposedly using the drug for health reasons. Can I ask what substitute Sharapova will use upon her return to tennis now that meldonium is banned? I mean, shouldn’t Sharapova’s health concerns still exist? Anyway, that’s a whole other story, but you can certainly make your own mind up there.
The grovelling and bowing down at the feet of Sharapova from the majority of the general tennis community has been completely and utterly nauseating. Are we really celebrating the return of a player who was banned for taking performance-enhancing drugs? Is tennis that desperate for publicity and money that it will compromise basic human morals for the sake of generating as much revenue as possible for Sharapova’s return? I don’t know about you, but I was face-palming like no tomorrow as my Twitter timeline blew up with cringe-worthy ‘welcome back messages’ from WTA and grand slam accounts lauding her return.
Sharapova will still be suspended from tennis for doping when the main draw of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix officially gets underway on April 24. The Russian’s ban doesn’t end until April 26. That means Sharapova will be entered in the tournament (a WTA Premier event) and the tournament will start while she’s still serving a suspension for performance enhancing drugs. Sharapova will not be allowed on site until the day of her first round match.
Yes, you can’t argue against Sharapova returning once her ban expires. She’s more than entitled to do that and is simply following the current rules. But the fact she’s coming back to competition into a tournament that will start while she’s still forcibly on the sidelines for doping is controversial to say the least. I had a short conversation with former ATP Anti-Doping chief and Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority boss Richard Ings on Twitter when the news broke, and while he took an opposite view to myself in regards to Sharapova’s return, he did suggest an alternative to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Secondly, it’s concerning that Sharapova has immediately been awarded a wildcard back to tennis - technically, she’s received a wildcard into a tournament that will start while she’s still serving a drugs ban. That’s not a good look, tennis. It’s not surprising in the slightest that Sharapova has acquired a wildcard into Stuttgart however - the tournament is after all sponsored by Porsche, who after initially distancing themselves from the 29-year-old when the meldonium scandal first broke, welcomed her back with open arms when CAS reduced the suspension to 15 months. They were always going to try and make the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix Sharapova’s comeback event when her return date was announced.
But my main issue is surely doping offenders shouldn’t be instantaneously rewarded with wildcards - no less before they are even permitted to return to competition. Sharapova, who is now unranked and therefore can’t enter WTA events without a wildcard, should be forced to work her way back up the ranks by competing in the lower-tier ITF events - in other words, she should start from scratch. There’s no doubt in my mind she would obtain enough ranking points to be able to at least enter WTA qualifying within a couple of months. Sharapova is one of the most mentally strong, determined and tenacious athletes I’ve ever seen in sport. You’d think she’d want to earn her way back into the sport she loves. She certainly would gain a little more respect from tennis fans and her fellow players alike that are still reeling from her shortened ban.
Another not-so-discussed aspect of Sharapova’s return is how it could potentially affect a select group of German players. Respected veterans Andrea Petkovic (a former slam semi-finalist), Sabine Lisicki (a former Wimbledon finalist) and Julia Goerges (a Stuttgart champion in 2011), along with last year’s surprise runner-up Laura Siegemund are in danger of missing out in gaining direct entry into the 2017 Porsche Tennis Grand Prix due to their current rankings. They are also in contention to be selected for Germany for Fed Cup the week before - meaning they can’t play qualifying. This means that Petkovic, Lisicki, Goerges and Siegemund could have to rely on a wildcard to play their home event. The tournament traditionally only hands out two wildcards. One has now been allocated to Sharapova, meaning only one of the aforementioned foursome will be eligible for the other. Last year the wildcards were handed to Goerges and another German, Anna-Lena Friedsam. Essentially, these German players are being punished because the tournament - remember, sponsored by Porsche - is immediately rewarding a player who will start the event still serving a doping ban for performance-enhancing drugs, with a wildcard (or an easy route) back into competition. I feel if you have any basic morals and know the standard principles of right and wrong, that shouldn’t sit well with you.
Maria Sharapova with Billie Jean King during a charity event in Las Vegas last October (Photo by JOHN GURZINSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Last of all, I found this quote from Porsche Tennis Grand Prix tournament director Markus Günthardt to be contentious to say the least.
“I’m really happy for Maria that she’s back after a long break. Particularly pleasing for me is that it’s going to be our audience that gets to watch her comeback live,” he said in a statement announcing Sharapova’s return. “Her return in the Porsche Arena is a fabulous present for our fantastic spectators and is certain to be one of the sporting and emotional highlights of our anniversary tournament.”
No, she isn’t returning after a ‘long break’, she’s returning after being suspended for doping. But the phrasing and terminology isn’t surprising - ‘We can’t wait to welcome back a convicted doper from a drugs ban’ doesn’t have the same ring to it. And while we’re on the topic of ‘long break’, Sharapova is fortunate beyond belief that her ban wasn’t the standard four years, let alone being reduced from two years to 15 months. And this won’t even be her first return to a tennis court in a notable setting - Sharapova also made an appearance at a charity World Team Tennis event in Las Vegas in October and during another exhibition against current Olympic singles gold medalist Monica Puig in Puerto Rico in December.
I’ll sign off with this. I’m far from a Sharapova ‘hater’. I believe she’s an extremely valuable asset to tennis and one of the great modern-day champions. I admire her resilience and determination to come back and attempt to dominate the sport. I’ve always enjoyed watching her compete. But she committed a major offence and compromised the integrity of tennis. I’d feel (and voice my opinions) the same way about any top player if they were caught and sanctioned with a similar transgression. Tennis for far too long has catered to their superstar players and made a scapegoat out of lower-ranked ’nobodies’. And this will continue on until prominent figures inside the sport do something about it.